It’s almost incredible to think it’s been some 14 years between David Byrne solo albums. That’s because he’s busy writing operas, staging shows, sending out e-newsletters, publishing books, collaborating with old pals (Brian Eno) and new friends (St. Vincent) and scoring soundtracks. He’s doing anything he can to not agree to a Talking Heads reunion. He’s doing anything he can to explore his creativity.
And so on his first solo album in 14 years he sounds like…well…himself, obviously. And in fact this album could stack up alongside the last three solo albums he offered – sitting anywhere alongside 1997’s Feelings, 2001’s Look into The Eyeball or 2004’s Grown Backwards. In fact I liken this most to Feelings – though it’s not as chirpy, not as quirky. No reason, 21 years on, for it to be of course. The world’s a different place and world-weariness informs a great deal of American Utopia.
I’m almost horrified by the opener, I Dance Like This – and though it’s growing on me a bit with each and every listen it feels (too much) like Byrne trying to write the sort of song that Lorde might also write. The chorus is awful. Certainly. The jarring jump-cut between verses and chorus is the big problem here for me. Were they not juxtaposed, were they simply two separate songs I think that’d be not only fine but quite possibly even dandy.
Still, Gasoline and Dirty Sheets builds on the sound and feel of many of the moments on Eno and Byrne’s excellent 2008 collaboration, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. There’s something soothing about Byrne’s voice – he can be telling us terrible things, mumbling incoherently even, but when he sets his dulcet tones to those mild sambas…well, it might now be a default setting but naïve melodies or otherwise, it always feels just like the right place to me.
Every Day Is A Miracle is less successful – sounding just like fodder, very nearly filler, and close to mid/late period Talking Heads. No great shame there. I like mid/late period Talking Heads almost as much as I love those first four glorious albums. But it’s just nothing exciting or special here. And with 14 years “off” and with so many great things to his name I expect something glorious from Byrne. Almost all the time.
This Is That meanders nicely before It’s Not Dark Up There reminds us of the great musical appropriations Byrne makes, how when he’s at his best in this domain he’s far more Peter Gabriel than Sting. Ditto: Bullet. A better, beguiling lyric here too.
Doing The Right Thing is an interesting prayer-in-reverse, and though its musical arrangement doesn’t quite work for me – too busy in too many places – it’s here that I start to hear how strong the back half of this album is; we’re only talking 37 minutes in total, it’s pared back, 10 songs that don’t particularly want to stick around – but it certainly gets stronger as it reaches its finale.
Everybody’s Coming To My House is vintage Byrne, the top of great “clever” single he’s put on albums ever since Once In A Lifetime, again this one feels like the great tunes on Feelings (Miss America, Dance on Vaseline, Wicked Little Doll). It’s infectious, upbeat, hanging hard on its own hooky-ness.
The moody closer, Here, goes back to his best Eno collaborations. It might be the best thing about the album. Certainly the final two tracks are the equal of any two album closers in his brilliant catalogue.
I guess I wanted this album to be a mind-blower. And it’s not. But it’s certainly no dud. For a start, any new Byrne album in this day and age ultimately exists for the tour attached to it. News of his American Utopia Tour is already filling feeds and getting close to blowing minds. And so for that alone this album deserves to exist and is good enough. But for a few moments across its second half and once or twice in its opening quarter-hour it’s even better than that.
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